By Ron Bailey
Abraham, My Friend
The Making of a Praying Man
Chapter One: Beginnings
Known unto God
In British War Cemeteries throughout the world you often come across the words ‘Known unto God' engraved on tombstones. It signifies that the person whose remains lie in this spot cannot be identified. At one and the same time, it is a bleak comment on the lonely anonymous sacrifice of so many and a reminder that, in truth, we are never alone. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. [Matthew 10:29] Modern translators feel an urge to complete this sentence and add words like ‘without your Father's will' or ‘without your Father's knowledge' or ‘without your Father's permission'. It is better to leave it just as it is ‘nothing happens without your Father' and then think about the implications; He cannot be excluded.
An old story is told about an atheist shoemaker. He was visited by his grand-daughter and he decided to make use of the time by sowing his atheism while she was young. He wrote out the sentence ‘God is nowhere' and got her to copy it onto her slate while he went back to his shoemaking. He returned expecting to find the sentence copied out several times and engraved on her mind. However the slate was too narrow for a child's large letters so she had found it necessary to break up the largest word to make it fit. The shoemaker looked down on the slate and found a sentence repeated several times; it read ‘God is now here'.
There are no ‘God-forsaken' places and God is at work in them all. Christ's own testimony was And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me. [John 12:32]. He was lifted up and He is drawing all men to Himself. Contrary to the impression given by some modern Christian choruses this statement has nothing to do with our praise but is a simple statement of fact. as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the Son of man be lifted up: This is not to say that all will cooperate with His ‘drawings', but in every place and every soul the ‘drawing' is at work. (God) now commandeth all men everywhere to repent: [Acts 17:30]
Abraham's home-town of Ur of the Chaldees (10 miles west of modern Nasiriyeh, Iraq) could never have been called ‘God-forsaken'. If anything, it was god-infested. It is impossible to be completely accurate with dates but the Bible record and the lifestyle details of Abraham indicate that his story begins approximately 2000 BC. (as a ‘rule of thumb' we can work on Abraham c2000 BC, Moses c1500 BC, David c1000BC, the rebuilding of Jerusalem c500 BC) Room 56 in the British Museum is full of fascinating artefacts from the Royal Tombs of Ur (c2600) right through to the time of Abraham.
Ur was a capital city for much of this time. The delicate skills of its craftsman were amazing. Working in gold, silver, lapis lazuli, ivory, and bronze they have left us an eloquent description of life between the rivers (Mesopotamia). They had four-ass-powered, four-wheel chariots with replaceable wheels where the warrior had an armoury of throwing spears and his own driver. They had a written language and law-codes and highly regulated patterns of life. Ur's position on the Euphrates gave it ready access to exotic imports through Basra, where the Euphrates meets the Tigris, and the Persian Gulf. Its merchants traded in precious stones and metals and its agriculturists worked complicated irrigation systems which guaranteed them rich harvests. And they built enormous temple mounds, including the famous Great Ziggurat of Ur (a kind of step-pyramid which stood over 60' tall and more than 200' wide) which would have dominated the skyline for all of Abraham's growing years. They worshipped and propitiated a pantheon of gods, both heavenly and from the underworld, and developed an elaborate priestcraft. There are many fascinating legal seals which show aspects of Ur religion. One shows a supreme god seated and approached by two goddesses with right hands raised; the symbol of allegiance and supplication. The goddesses are leading a man into the presence of the greater god. Archaeologists sometimes call these minor goddesses ‘intercessors'; by their actions they bring men into the presence of god. It is an interesting insight into a role that one day Abraham would fulfil, not by pagan ritual but because he became ‘Abraham, My Friend'.
Around the time that Abraham was born Ur of the Chaldees fell under violent incursions from nomadic Amorites. The empire of Ur-Nammu collapsed and for the next 200 years Ur was the centre of turbulent times as other cities vied for supremacy. Terah raised his family in Ur at this time and at the ripe age of 130 he fathered Abraham, his youngest son. Terah was an Ur-ite through and through. He had seen Ur-Nammu (2112-2095 BC) arrive, had watched the development of his dynasty, empire and religion and had outlasted him, but now the city was in turmoil (2004 BC). At some point during his time in Ur his eldest son, Haran (Lot's father), had died in his father's presence. What tragedy lies behind this simple statement? Was this one of the factors which ‘unsettled' Terah? Did he leave Ur for the safety of his remaining family? We have no answers to these questions other than to say all the answers were ‘Known unto God'. God was not excluded from the ebbing and flowing of empires, nor was He missing when Haran died in his father's presence in the land of his nativity, in Ur of the Chaldees.
We often hear of Abraham's faith, and we will come to that soon, but the first account of Abraham's departure from Ur is contained in the words And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran his son's son, and Sarai his daughter in law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there. [Gen 11:31] Terah took them; this makes Terah the prime mover in these events. Now this raises a further question; can God be at work in the decision of an idol-worshipping head of a family whose decisions are based on fear and who has no knowledge of the true God?
My old preacher friend once said 'When you are newly Christian you will marvel at the way that God intervenes in answer to your prayers; when you get older you will see that God's grace is even more evident in His providence.' Have you been nicely settled in ‘Ur' enjoying its sophistication and predictability? It may be that God will have to loosen your ropes with events that disturb and bring pain. It may be that He will unfold His will through the actions of someone who doesn't even know Him. Sometimes He speaks through your enemies. As Josiah discovered to his loss, sometimes your worst enemy's words are from the mouth of God. [2 Chron 20-23]
Don't be too quick to shake off the dictates of secular or family authority. God knew what He was doing when He placed you there. Even though you are ‘born-again' and have insights that your parents lack this may be a time when you are to be subject to them; though they understood not the saying which He spake unto them. And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth, and was subject to them; for another 18 years! The circumstance that chafes so persistently may yet be God's unique provision for you. In terms of providence we learn very little in prospect, a little more in context, but most of all in retrospect. And best of all we discover that while we were fretting and wondering what we should do next it was already ‘Known unto God'. When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do.
Don't fret little bird, trapped in your narrow cage, He knows what He will do. Empires will rise and fall but in the midst of all the fog of war He is silently planning for you, in love. And He will use their rise and fall to do things in you that will last forever. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever. [1 John 2:17]